Shooting on-location portraits in different parts of the world demands both technical and people skills. Photographer Esam Hassanyeh is using his experience to create an as natural situation as possible. He has just came back from a photo project in Ethiopia and showed us his behind the scenes video.
Esam Hassanyeh is a world citizen if ever there was one. He is Lebanese, born in Sierra Leone and grew up in the UK. The last 15 years he spent in Paris, Jakarta and Dubai. Now he is back in London and has just finished a photographic and cultural project with the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia.
“I have a fascination with people and culture around the world and why they live the way they do, but tribes have been photographed so many times. I wanted to try something more personal.”
That is why he chose to stay with a remote Hamar community that had never been studied before. But it was just as much a photographical journey as an exploration on a personal level.
“That’s the great thing about personal projects – you shoot for yourself. I was not just looking for a photographic experience, but also a unique cultural and spiritual life experience” Esam explains.
The trip lasted for 3 weeks, of which the first few days he spent without a camera just getting acknowledgement from the people around him. As he didn’t speak the local tongue he observed body language and still tried to interact as much as possible.
“You cannot go to a place like this and just start shooting. It takes several days for people to accept you. Being respectful and considerate to social and cultural customs is essential. The first few days my camera is away. I interact as much as possible.”
Meanwhile he was considering the lighting options and scouted for places to shoot. He watched people going about their daily routines, looking for natural moments and visualizing photographs.
Esam always start shooting with a few short set-ups. Since his subjects are new to being photographed the first shots usually do not turn out to be good images but, as he explains, is an essential starting point. He learnt that, by showing the images to his subjects, they understand what you are trying to do and highlights the importance of keeping the people comfortable.
“If you put people in poses they become stiff and uncomfortable. You must keep them natural as it adds so much more to the photograph. Once people get used to this, you have the freedom to work creatively. Then, just sit patiently and wait for the moment.”
Shooting in-location under these very specific conditions can be a challenge. “But great fun!”, Esam exclaims.
“Having strobes powerful enough to control strong ambient light, using camera equipment in a hot place and shooting alone can drive you crazy when you have to do it all yourself.
“Your guides help but they can only do the basics. Also, you are in a much slower part of the world where photographs have little significance. So you need to learn patience and realize that you cannot shoot everything but have to be selective.
“This way of working actually develops how you explore photography.”
When asked if he has any personal favorites among the images Esam says that each image has its own unique personal significance. But the most challenging portrait was that of Goeti up an acacia tree.
“Geoti arrived at dawn every day with a glowing smile on her face and the energy of the rising sun. She climbed acacia trees and cut branches with her machete to feed the goats.
“After watching her every morning, I had a (macho) urge to climb the tree and take her portrait. I soon found out this is not easy with camera gear.
“Whilst the final photograph is not technically great, the portrait to me captures the spirit of this incredible woman and the spirit of photography.”
He climbed the tree for a test shot. Due to the strong backlight of dawn and limited shoot position he had to consider his options carefully.
“My 35mm was too wide and my 80mm was the only shot but very tight.”
He stood on the only available branch, in front of Goeti. The first attempt failed, so the next day he pulled a Profoto B1 Off-Camera Flash with a Profoto RFi Softbox 5’ Octa on a rope as the main light. He set another B1 on the ground to her right as a fill light. Camera was set to 200th, f4 and ISO 200.
“I had little room to maneuver. The sun rose very fast and was very strong. The final shot was a bit rushed but it was more fun than anything else. More importantly, everything came down safely.”
If you are interested in how he did the shoot Esam made a behind the scenes video from his photo journey.
See more of Esams images and projects on his website.
Read more about the Profoto Off-Camera Flash System.
2 x Profoto B1 Off-Camera Flash
Profoto Air Remote
Profoto RFi Softbox 5’ Octa + Speedring
Profoto RFi Softbox 3’ Octa with grid + Speedring
Profoto RFi Sopftbox 1×3′ Strip with grid + Speedring
Hasselbald H4D 40 + 35mm, 80mm & 100mm lenses
B+W 2 stop + 3 stop ND filters
Collapsible black/white background
Canon 5d3 + 24-70mm lens (as backup)
Gopro Hero 3+ and Hero 4 (broke first day)
15” Mac Pro Retina
Sekonic light meter